When Brazil’s president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was re-elected barely six months ago the country’s, and the world’s, environmental campaigners breathed a collective sigh of relief. Here was a president committed to reversing the devastation wrought on the Amazon by his far-right predecessor Jair Bolsonaro, who encouraged deforestation at the highest levels in decades.
During his campaign, Lula vowed to stamp out environmental crime and champion indigenous people and, in office, appointed strong supporters of both causes, like environment minister, Marina Silva, to carry out the work. Now, however, Brazil’s Congress, still dominated by “ruralista” backers of agribusiness and Bolsonaro supporters, is blocking key parts of Lula’s policy. It has passed a Bill removing important protections on the land of indigenous people and undoing a proposed reorganisation of government departments. This was aimed in part at preventing land-grabbing and deforestation – the ministry for indigenous peoples has been stripped of responsibility for delimiting indigenous territories.
It represents Lula’s first major clash with a newly conservative Congress following significant gains by right-wingers in last year’s election. Indigenous people and environmental campaigners have reacted in horror.
The scale of Brazil’s challenge is immense and desperately urgent, particularly the loss of a colossal carbon sink, a critical buffer against global climate warming. In the Amazon region in the last two decades an area the size of Spain – 10 per cent of its tree cover – has been deforested, mostly because of road development, agricultural expansion and mining. Brazil, which is home to three- fifths of the rainforest, saw 80 per cent of the Amazon deforestation, some 440,031sq km.
A recent study warns that unless there is a dramatic shift in policy the Amazon rainforest could lose half again of what it lost in those first two decades within the next five years. Greenpeace Brazil has denounced the congressional moves as an act of anti-environmental “barbarity”.